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Naturalist’s Notebook – June 18, 2016 to June 24, 2016

The dramatic change in the distribution of whales that began in the middle of last week has not only continued, but intensified.  At the beginning of last week, whalewatch passengers were seeing mostly finback whales and a few humpback whales.  By the end of the week, the trips were finding fewer finbacks and up to a dozen or so humpback whales.  This week, however, naturalists are reporting two dozen, three dozen, and four dozen humpback whale sightings per trip.  One even reported seeing nearly five dozen humpback whales.

This shift in visible abundance was most likely caused by food.  Nearly every trip between Saturday and into Wednesday reported seeing humpback whales feeding at the surface.  Most make mention of various feeding behaviors, including the blowing of bubble clouds and kick-feeding.  Notes were made about single whales feeding through bubble clouds and bubble nets of their own and about small groups of humpbacks lunging through spirals of bubble columns.  Through Tuesday, most of the lunging appeared to be taking place at the surface, revealling “rack” upon “rack” of humpback whale baleen and extended rorqual pleats beyond count.

One humpback whale whose feeding behavior got noticed by several naturalists was a female named Tornado.  Tornado is the 1988 daughter of Fringe and she is here with her 10th calf.  She has a rather unique style of kick-feeding that she did not learn from her mother.  Like the other humpbacks, she blows her bubbles before coming to the surface.  Then, like Echo and a few others, she will lift her chin above the water and pound the surface with her chin before lifting her flukes above the surface to slam them down overtop of where her bubbles are rising.  Her little twist to this is that as she is lifting her chin  out of the water to kick with it, she also raises the tips of her pectoral flippers out of the water and kind of bats at the water with them as she brings her chin crashing down.  I have never seen another humpback whale use its flippers in this manner and am intriqued to see if her young calf will learn this behavior and make it part of its feeding activity.  Though, it should be pointed out that none of her other nine calves have done so.

Numerous mothers were spotted among the feeding humpbacks, leaving numerous calves to amuse themselves while they earned their livings.  When you are a humpback whale calf, there are a number of ways to pass the time.  A few were seen logging throughout the week (a resting behavior that is the closest thing humpback whales can do to sleep).  You can socialize with the other calves, swimming around together and working your way just a little further away from mom, but not so far that you loose contact.  You can roll on your side, or back, and flipperslap.  You can lift your flukes above the surface for a round of lobtailling.  Or you could exercise nearly all of your muscles at once by breaching.  All of these were observed by very excited whalewatchers this week, both early while the moms were feeding and later on when the moms would occasionally join in.

The other thing you might do if you were a humpback whale calf that is waiting for its mother to have her fill is to excercise your mammalian faculty for curiosity.  Among other things, this week calves were seen busily examining seaweed, a plastic bucket, and whalewatch boats.  When they are curious about seaweed, they are not shy about touching it.  That might be because by the time they are five or six months old, they likely have had some experience with it.  I have never seen a newborn calf and I don’t know how long it might take for one to become used to seaweed enough to actually touch it.  Anyway, by the time they arrive in the feeding grounds, any shyness they have about seaweed is gone.  They swim through it and roll in it.  They might lift it out of the water and balance it on their head.  In many ways, it reminds you of a kitten playing with yarn.

Between the calving grounds and here, calves probably have far less experience with things like buckets.  When you see a calf checking out something like this, sometimes it looks as if it is trying to decide if it’s ok to nudge.  The calf might swim around it a little bit, appearing to gauge its movements as if almost waiting for a response.  Sometimes that is all the interaction you will get to see.  Sometimes, the calf will rub against it as it swims by.  And occasionally, it might push the bucket around with its head.

Adult humpback whales also exhibit curious behavior.  They, too, have been seen checking out things like seaweed and buckets.  One of the most exciting moments of curiosity I ever was fortunate enough to watch was when a male named Icarus took an interest in the old “gas buoy” that used to be chained just a few miles off shore of Race Point Light.  He would circle the buoy and then drop in what appeared to be a nearly vertical dive.  I couldn’t be sure then, and I still can’t today, but I was left with the feeling that he was following the chains from the buoy to the bottom.

There is a difference between a whale passing close to a boat because the boat just happens to be where the whale was going to go and a curious approach to a vessel.  Many times when you are whalewatching, whales will go under your boat or surface nearby.  That is just the random luck of being where you are.   Sometimes though, the whale will seek out the boat, approaching for a closer look.  This might be because of the sounds being made by the boat, or because of the shade cast by it, or because of the way the water moves around the boat (or because of it).  Any number of things might draw the attention of a humpback whale to the boat.

When they are curious about the boat they orient their body so that they are facing the boat.  Most of the time, they will move so that their jaw points toward the boat.  They may go underneath the boat, coming out on the other side, again with their jaw aimed at the boat.  They might swim around the boat, possibly rolling on their side to look at it with an open eyeball.  Many times they will hover around the stern, likely checking out the sounds coming from the boat’s generator.  I have never, though, in my 22 years of whalewatching, seen a humpback whale touch a boat that it was curious about.  I have seen them spin around and follow the boat.  I have seen them mirror the motions of the boat in choppy seas.  I have even seen mothers kind of edging their calves a little closer.  But I have never seen one, adult or calf, touch the boat during a curious approach.

That is the kind of week we had whalewatching.